How the Tour de France encourages cheating
I didn't write this one, guys. But, I was interviewed by GQ magazine a couple years ago while I was in a smelly press room at the Tour de France. You can read all about it here!
by Dan Nosowitz
When a concealed electric motor was found in a Belgian cyclist’s bike, governing bodies reacted swiftly and severely. The offending cyclist, Femke Van Den Driessche, was banned for six years and fined heavily—so heavily, in fact, that she soon announced her retirement from competitive cycling. It is perhaps the biggest scandal to hit cycling since Lance Armstrong’s doping revelations. In the U.S., where competitive cycling is not especially popular, the scandal earned much more news coverage than any legal accomplishments of cyclists, even with the Tour de France only a few months away. It seems likely that more Americans have heard of the motor scandal than can name a single competitor in the Tour de France.
Though cramming a literal motor into a bicycle is an almost cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote cheating tactic, it is a scandal that could only happen to the sport of cycling. It is a deeply strange sport: a team sport in which only an individual can win, one of the only that requires an advanced machine, an arms race between competitors and officiants, and, most importantly, a game of marginal differences. Cycling, more than perhaps any other sport, throws the entire concept of “sport” into question.
All sports, really, are about setting rules and forcing competitors to compete within those boundaries. Some sports actually require the bending or breaking of rules to win: think of intentional fouling in basketball. Obviously fouls are against the rules, but a team can decide that the reward from breaking this rule—maybe you stop a guaranteed basket on a breakaway, or maybe you send a lousy free-throw shooter to the line and probably get the ball back when he misses—is greater than the penalty.
Racing sports, like swimming, running, and cycling, do not have many flexible rules like that. An intentional foul in basketball isn’t cheating; it’s strategy. It is expected that most teams will deliberately break rules in most games. Racing sports are too simple to afford rules that are breakable. If the punishment for shoving the leading cyclist to the ground was a one-minute penalty added to the offender’s time, the sport would mutate into a frenzy of calculated shoving. Instead, the vast majority of penalties in road cycling are mostly weird, small fines that don’t really change the outcome of the event.